Economic recession 2008: measuring the strength of the economy

It’s the economy, stupid

IT’S THE economy, stupid” is a well known phrase that was widely used during Bill Clinton‘s 1992 presidential campaign against George Bush senior. The phrase was coined by Clinton campaign strategist James Carville and refers to the notion that Clinton was a better choice because Bush had not adequately addressed the economy, which had recently headed into a recession. Clinton went on to win a decisive victory.

Having entered the second quarter of 2008, the American economy may be heading towards a recession once again.

What is a recession?

Broadly speaking, a recession is a period of slow or negative economic growth, usually accompanied by rising unemployment. Economists have other more precise definitions of a recession, the easiest of which to understand is “two consecutive quarters of falling GDP”.

This definition was borrowed from the Economist A-Z, which is a really useful resource for understanding economic terms. I have added it to my list of useful links.

Strength of the US economy

A key contributor to the current weakness of the US economy is the sub-prime mortgage crisis. To indicate the magnitude of the losses suffered from the crisis, it is useful to note that the largest US bank, Citigroup Inc., has alone incurred more than US$45 billion of write-downs and credit losses since 30 June 2007.

In order to stimulate the American economy, the Federal Reserve has slashed the Federal Funds Rate by 2.75% between 18 September 2007 and 30 April 2008.

Gordon Brown, George Soros and Warren Buffett are all of the opinion that America, and the world at large, is currently facing its worst financial crisis since the 1930s. In particular, Warren Buffet was quoted by the LA Times on May 5 saying, “I would say that we’re in a recession, clearly”.

In the first three months of 2008, the US economy managed to achieve a modest annual growth rate of 0.6%. So, at least according to the precise Economists’ definition provided above, the US is not yet in a recession.

However, things are far from in the clear. Reuters reports that Scotia Capital senior currency strategist Camilla Sutton outlined that there are some very negative indicators for the strength of the US economy in the short term,

[T]he housing market has yet to bottom, consumer confidence is at multi-decade lows, employment growth has evaporated and high commodity prices are … exacerbating an already weak economic backdrop.

Bearing all of this in mind, concern about the short term strength of the US economy was sparked yesterday, May 6, when US crude oil prices hit a record high of US$120.36 a barrel. The rising price of oil (and food) is contributing to a higher US inflation rate. The US inflation rate, for the 12 months ending March 2008, was 4.0%. This compares with an inflation rate for the same period last year of 2.8%. Inflation is a procyclical coincident economic indicator because price levels tend to rise when the economy is booming. However, the rising price of oil is being driven by booming developing economies, in particular India and China, and not from growth in the US economy. Higher oil prices are also being driven by the uncertainty of oil supply resulting from political unrest in certain oil producing countries and interruptions in supply due to extreme weather conditions, leading to higher prices and slower growth in the US economy.

There is some cause for optimism however. According to the Times Online, recent economic data on the American economy (measuring things like jobs, GDP, business confidence, industrial orders and consumer spending) indicates that, although the US economy weakened abruptly in the final quarter of 2007 (October to December), the US economy is not nearly as weak as it has been at the start of previous recessions.

Strength of the world economy

According to the IMF, the growth prospects for the world economy in 2008 appear to be strong.

In the IMF’s World Economic Outlook, published in October 2007, the IMF indicates that global economic growth is predicted to be 4.75% in 2008. Interestingly, this prediction is made in light of the fact that financial market strains might trigger a more pronounced slowdown in the world economy.

Growth in developing countries appears to be the main driver for the expected strong global economic growth in 2008. In 2007, economic growth in China, Russia and India accounted for half of global economic growth. The IMF indicates that in 2008, the Chinese economy is expected to grow by 10% and the Indian economy by 8.4%. This is an extremely fast rate of economic growth, which would see the size of the Chinese economy double in less than 8 years.

If you enjoyed this article, you may want to read about The benefits of an economic recession and how to prepare for one, on the James Cox finance blog.

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3 Replies to “Economic recession 2008: measuring the strength of the economy”

  1. Few points….

    Firstly, nice article… I never imagined it would have ended with such clear indicators of a recession as a cab rank queue.

    Secondly, I think it may be worth going through the actual economics and monetary flow behind citigroup or UBS writing down billions. Where does it all go? If someone is losing, who is profiting ? How did they arrive in such a shocking positon?

    I may beat you to blogging about this and i think it is particularly interesting how some of the smartest investment bankers and capital investors around got it so wrong.

  2. Thank you James, I have slightly modified my post.

    On your second point, the importance of looking at the investment banking write downs did occur to me.

    Firstly, it was slightly outside the scope of this post.

    Secondly, I was actually thinking that a post of that kind would be slightly better suited to the theme of your blog. Although, I am happy to write the article and have you link to me if you like.

  3. Very Informative article Tom. I think emerging markets are going to lead the next recovery. The markets with strong fundamentals, good democracy, and Open mind will beat the economic recession.

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